FORUM: Should clients boycott ITV in airtime costs row? - Some advertisers at the recent Marketing Forum on board the Oriana lost patience with ITV. This was far worse than all the other times they’ve lost patience with ITV - this time they called

There’s something about boats. Or should that be ships? Cram the marketing community aboard an ocean-going vessel for a few days and those who aren’t seasick will start to turn a little stir crazy. As one marketing director said this week: ’I’m sure the Oriana is very nice but I never go on these things because you can’t get off.’ Not unless you’re a good swimmer, of course.

There’s something about boats. Or should that be ships? Cram the

marketing community aboard an ocean-going vessel for a few days and

those who aren’t seasick will start to turn a little stir crazy. As one

marketing director said this week: ’I’m sure the Oriana is very nice but

I never go on these things because you can’t get off.’ Not unless you’re

a good swimmer, of course.



As it happens, a small band of hapless ITV sales executives attending

the Marketing Forum on the Oriana were almost invited to display their

prowess in this department. Things turned rather ugly during one of the

sessions - and, if there had been any planks to hand, the ITV contingent

might have walked.



Mark Horgan, the marketing director of McVitie’s UK, led the charge.



Television airtime inflation was unbearably high, he argued. ITV was to

blame. ITV should be punished. Advertisers, under the aegis of the

Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, should organise a partial

boycott of the network. Horgan said: ’I challenge ISBA to drive change

at ITV. Let’s get the top five spenders who are ISBA members to reduce

their spend.’



The change Horgan refers to is ITV audience performance, a topic that

has infuriated big-spending TV advertisers for the past few years. Now,

if the militant tendency has its way, things could start getting very

rough.



Is it likely? Advertising is where competition between rival companies

finds its most intense form of expression. Can they be persuaded to

indulge in the marketing equivalent of playing football in no man’s

land? John Hooper, the director-general of ISBA, who contributed to the

Oriana debate, summed up the pitfalls: ’If one of you pulls out of (an

ITV) region, another will grab the airtime.’



But threats continue to fly. Are some advertisers serious about this, or

have they spent too much time messing about in boats? And, whatever the

agenda, should this be an ISBA matter?



Bob Wootton, director of media services at ISBA, chooses his words

carefully: ’It’s not ISBA’s role to call for a boycott but we are

certainly here to help if there was a move in that direction.’ Wootton

argues that advertisers would not seek to inflict major damage - merely

send the right signals.



’Advertisers have become very concerned that they have been unable to

make their views heard - and it would be unwise to underestimate the

strength of feeling there is. A boycott is not a siege - which I agree

would be extremely damaging and in no-one’s interest. A boycott would be

localised. Advertisers have never done this before and that alone would

send an important signal to the market. But the spark that lights the

fire can’t come from ISBA.’



Where will the spark come from then? Many big spending advertisers

contacted by Campaign this week refused to comment, other than saying

that they were slightly mystified by the whole episode. Nigel

Brotherton, the communications manager for Volkswagen Group, certainly

won’t be leading the rush to man the barricades. He comments: ’As a car

advertiser, I’m aware that I can be accused of hypocrisy when I say I’m

as upset as anyone about airtime inflation - in our market, lack of

audience is a factor, but so is the fact that we and our competitors are

spending ever-increasing amounts of money on television advertising. ITV

should get a focus and a viable product to stack up against the BBC - at

the moment, any new channel that comes along hurts ITV and no-one else.

Why should that be?’



Brotherton admits a boycott might be a token gesture. He adds: ’If there

was an industry initiative I would probably fall into line, but it

certainly won’t be something I’ll be active in organising. I think it’s

extremely sad that advertisers have to make threats to get ITV to

realise there’s a problem. We’re all sick of ITV people telling us that

everything is all right. It isn’t. They have to start reading the

signals. Soon it won’t be facing a boycott, it will be facing the fact

that the market has decided that ITV isn’t viable. When that happens we

won’t need ISBA to tell us to move our money out. By then it will be too

late for ITV. I’m already close to looking seriously at alternative

media strategies.’



Martin Bowley, the managing director of Carlton UK Sales, says that he

is disappointed by the stance adopted by some advertisers. ’On Monday

you saw at ITV 98 real and constructive evidence that it has been

listening to its customers. We announced the arrival of our new chief

executive, Richard Eyre, our new programme director, David Liddiment,

and the appointment of a marketing director.’ Bowley also points out

that TV inflation in general, and on ITV is particular, is lower than

most people think. (The figures are 5 per cent and 6 per cent

respectively.) ’I implore anyone who has a vague perception of media

inflation simply to check the facts,’ he says.



But many in the TV market believe that this is much ado about

nothing.



Tony Kenyon, the chief executive of the Negotiation Centre, is sceptical

about boycott calls: ’There’s a not a cat in hell’s chance of this

happening. If someone thinks that ITV is too expensive, they are

entitled to spend their money elsewhere or find a media buying company

that can buy better.’ He points out that there can be no strategic gains

from a boycott - the threat merely indicates the level of bad feeling

that has built up between ITV and advertisers.



He adds: ’If 10 per cent of advertisers decide not to spend their money

on ITV one month, it makes that month 10 per cent cheaper - but it

doesn’t make the next month 10 per cent cheaper. If my experience in

these matters is any good, they’ll all want to spend the money the next

month, making it 10 per cent more expensive and nullifying the whole

exercise. Clearly, the issue of inflation is not one that we should

ignore, but the arbitrary withdrawal of funds is no solution. There are

other pressures ISBA could more profitably bring to bear. But the fact

is that if advertisers could afford not to be on air, they wouldn’t be

there in the first place.’